Thursday, February 25, 2010

parallel universes

"Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common..."
(Qur'an 3:64))

"This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
(Leonard Bernstein)

25 feb, 2010, birthday of the muhammad (peace be upon him!)

There's a story of something that happened to me some years ago that keeps recurring to me these past few days, that's sort of an snapshot of how wierd and wonderful my life these past years has been. I was on my way to Washington DC, having been invited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to be one of a panel of musicians to consult on liturgical chant for the new Sacramentary, the offical book of prayers for the Mass. To be honest, despite my babbling on and on about Hindu bhajans and African-American spirituals at the consultation, I think it had actually already been decided that the Gregorian chant in the Roman Missal was going to be translated into and adapted slightly for English, but they did gather some of us in two different localities to discuss it, mainly who was going to do it and some of the fine points of meter and rhythm, etc. And it did feel like quite an honor to have been asked to be included on the panel, though I was never consulted again (probably because of my babbling on and on about Hindu bhajans and African-American spirituals). I remember that I was the only one in the room without either a Roman collar or a coat and tie. I was trying to be on my best behaviour, but I remember at one point jumping up and singing something for the whole crowd, perhaps even kind of dancing a little as I did it, as is my wont. The headquarters were very imposing--this is also the center of the political arm of the Bishops' Conference--security was tight. The whole proceedings were filmed and there was a microphone before each of our places at the long conference tables. It felt Very Serious, and I felt very out-of-place.

But the evening before, it just so happened that a young man named Chris, whom I had met while staying with Abbot Francis Kline (of blessed memory) at Mepkin Abbey the previous summer, was going to be passing through Washington DC the very day that I was arriving. So we arranged for he and his traveling companion, Rick, to meet me at the airport, take me to my hotel room, and spend the evening together. We managed to find each other at the airport, and I remember that as soon as I climbed into the back seat of the car, Rick, who was driving, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me a question about "cosmic consciousness," picking up on a conversation that Chris and I had had the previous summer--and we were off. We spent a kind of ecstatic evening together talking about spirituality and many other things. They were both part of an inter-religious spiritual group at their university in Pennsylvania and were both quite bright and articulate. Rick, it turns out, was a Muslim of Mideastern background. At one point in the conversation, Chris and I were talking about meditation and the use of a mantra, and I mentioned to Rick the 99 Beautiful Names of God that are found in the Qur'an, and what a beautiful mantra one or all of those names would make, prayed on the tasbih-prayer rope. But, to my surprise, he had never heard of the 99 Beautiful Names of God! So I remember dragging them back to my hotel room and tearing my suitcase apart (this was pre-Eagle Creek backpack days) because I just happened to have two copies of the Beautiful Names with me that I had recently photocopied. One was already in my Bible, where it still is today, near the picture of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib with his hands gripping the bars of his cell, a tasbih intertwined in his fingers; and I was sure that the reason I had made that second copy was to give it to Rick.

The first reason I've thought about this event is because during an interview for the parish newsletter last week in Singapore, when the interviewer asked me why I studied the other world religions, I thought immediately of Rick, and how glad I was that I knew enough about his tradition to be able to point him toward his own tradition and be of service to him. The second reason I thought about it was the shift in consciousness that I had to undergo from that ecstatic evening with those two young searchers talking about the evolution of consciousness and spirituality as contrasted to the necessarily, I suppose, conservative and rather staid environment of the USCCB headquarters the next morning discussing the adaptation of Gregorian chant into English with no real probability of another approach. It was like walking in two parallel universes, without the benefit of passing through any kind of de-pressurization chamber. The other reason I thought about it was because, on my way home from India and in the midst of staying here at the Pure Life Society with Mother Mangalam, Dr Pat took me to visit the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur the other day.

I didn't know what to expect. Pat always refers to him, without any irony, as "His Grace," so I was prepared for all kinds of formality, and even asked at one point if I should kiss his ring. (She said absolutely not.) He was involved in a clergy day of recollection at the pastoral center and was going to receive us during their tea break at 5:30 PM. He was a lovely man, very gracious and articulate, dressed very casually in secular clothes, and had the real heart of a pastor. And we spent most of the time talking about liturgy. The whole conversation got started when he asked me what the popularity of the Latin Mass was in America, and I asked him in turn if he had had to sign off on the new translation of the Roman Missal in English, since Malaysia is also an English speaking country. It seemed to me that both sides of the whole foment over language is sort of lost on him, the liberals who don't like the new translation (mostly Americans, English and Australians) and the conservatives who are pushing for more and more Latin. As for the former, he had celebrated the Rite of Catachumens in four languages the other day, English, Tamil, Bahasa and Mandarin, so the accuracy of the English translation was not his main priority. As for the second, the same situation applied. Even when he had his ad limina visit with the Holy Father, the archbishop explained the same situation to him, and how he didn't have the time and resources to devote to encouraging a Latin Mass. He said the Pope understood that very well and let him know that the most important thing was that his people knew they were loved by God. He also gave a little apocryphal tidbit about Don Cipriano that I didn't know.

Side note: the good bishop was quite taken with the fact that I chose my name partly because of Don Cipriano Vagaggini, the late great liturgist of whom he was a great admirer, especially when I told him that Don Cipriano had ended his life as a Camaldolese. The archbishop knew well of Shantivanam and Fr Bede, and he said that Vagaggini thought that the Indian rite was a wonderful ritualization of the inner meaning of the eucharistic doxology, with the waving of the light and incense before the consecrated bread and wine.

Anyway, after all these weeks of everything they have been, it did feel like a bit of an abrupt shift to spend and hour talking about liturgy and liturgical music with the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and even more to go back to Pure Life and jump right in another car and head back to the lectures on the Bhagavad Gita with Mother Mangalam. (We also went on Wednesday, so I was able to attend three out of four in all.) Aside from those two things, I have had nothing else to do all week until last night when I had my first of three concerts here. It has been steamy hot here, with no escape from the humidity and heat except to sit still or slip into an air-conditioned room somewhere. I've for the most part opted for sitting still.

Last night's concert was at the Jesuit parish, St Francis Xavier. I was told that this parish might be a little more on the traditional side, so was advised to stick to mainly Christian songs as opposed to the world music, and especially to avoid the "A" word. I thought they meant "alleluia" because it's Lent, but they meant "Allah." I think I have already written about that. Short version: the government has tried to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah" in print or in in public speaking (along with 12 other Arabic phrases) in spite of the fact that it is the word for God in the native Malay language, Bahasa, as it is in other Arabic based languages as well as Bahasa Indonesia, where it is no problem. As a matter of fact, one priest from this diocese who came to vist me here at Pure Life yesterday said that he was one of the first to provoke the wrath of the law some 19 years ago when he was actually arrested and detained for singing "Allah" in a Taize chant. And it is this very same bishop with whom I had tea the other day who has been spearheading the challenge in court. Recently the courts have ruled in favor of the Christians, but some politicians are challenging the court ruling, and there have been fire bombings of churches in protest and counter fire bombings of mosques by some fundamentalist Christians in relataliation.

It seems especially poignant that today is Muhammed's birthday, of course a public holiday here in Malaysia, and it is with a strange sadness that I listened to the beautiful chanting over the loudspeakers early this morning. Inspired by my time with Imam Naveed in Copenhagen and our plans for the upcoming trip together to the mideast, I wrote a new song last Fall called "The Ground We Share": "The holy ground is the ground that we share / like the holy city Jerusalem..." The idea for it came about like this: We were talking about going together to Lebanon and Syria, but when I got to England after my time with Naveed and Agnete in Denmark, Naveed sent an e-mail that said something like, "Cyprian, my brother, why don't we also go to Jerusalem? I want to go to the Holy City with you." Just reading that gave me goose bumps and within a day I had written a few verses for this song about Jerusalem, with two verses from the Psalms and one from the Book of Revelation. These are the psalm verses:
How my heart was glad when I heard the call,
"Let us go to God's house, let us hasten there."
And now our feet are within your walls
in the land of peace and the ground that we share. (Ps 122)

Let my tongue be mute, let my hands fall off
if I place you not over every other care.
God forbid I remember not
the land of peace and the ground that we share. (Psalm 137)

A not unrelated side note: as Fr Bruno has pointed out to me, it is not to be understated how much my background in liturgy and adapting scriptural texts for liturgical use aids me in my approach to inter-religious dialogue through universal wisdom and music... Anyway, I asked Naveed to suggest something from the Qur'an as well. He suggested the story of the Night Flight, when Muhammad was carried by horse to Jerusalem, referred to as "the Farthest House" or "the Distant Mosque" late one night. Once there he was able to discern what was in the hearts of its residents.
God's servant carried by the Holy One
to the Farthest House, late at night, through the air,
saw all the good and the evil done
in the Land of Peace and the ground that we share.

I had had no cause to perform yet so it was still in embryonic form until I got to India, where we had the idea to use it for the biblical drama with Agnete and Elle down in Madurai. It just kind of came together in a nice arrangement when I needed it to, like something just waiting to be born. But even as I was writing it, I had had in my mind this situation here in Malaysia with which I have been famliar for three years now. The ethnic Malays, who are Muslims by birth and by law, consider themselves to be the "bumi putra," "sons of the land." So the use of the word Allah is symbolic to them of their heritage. Many of my ethnic Chinese and Indian friends are quite saddened by that distinction since their Malaysian roots go back many generations as well; and certainly the people of Borneo, who do speak Bahasa Malaysia and many of whom are Christian, are children of that land for countless generations. So the lines in the refrain, "...the prophets' land and my parents' land, the land of peace and the ground that we share" has an emotional meaning here as well.

So, sadly I didn't feel as if I could sing either "Bismillah" or "The Drink Sent Down" there last night, but decided to sing "The Ground We Share" in its place. They had an overhead projector that they use for displaying song lyrics there so we were able to project the words and so the assembly was able sing along as well, beautifully as they did for all the evening's songs. I hadn't noticed so much before how much like a lament the melody is, but I invited to audience, who probably didn't need any prompting, to experience it in that way, and to carry the ache of separation and the sin of division, and let the lament become a longing and the longing be the voice of hope that we can overcome our differences and find the ground that we share. Between Naveed's email and the ache here, I feel as if I am beginning to understand just a little of the apocalyptic urgency and hope of the Book of Revelation:
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down from heaven like a bride prepared.
God will dwell in the midst of them
in the land of peace and the ground that we share.